2020 Monarch Butterflies

A few weeks ago, we released the last of our monarch butterflies, and I’ve been meaning to share my photos ever since. We had only four caterpillars this year. (Last time we had 19!) We think a few of the caterpillars may have been preyed upon by wasps (because we counted more eggs), so we didn’t hesitate to move these four into our mesh cage when we found them. Here’s our monarch summer in photos. Enjoy!

The tiny white spot is an egg.
Recently hatched caterpillar.
Getting bigger.
In the mesh cage for safe keeping. Brought them fresh milkweed leaves everyday.
When they are getting ready to pupate, they attach themselves to the top of the cage and form a J shape with their body.
Beautiful chrysalises.
Right before they eclose, the chrysalis turns black. You can see the butterfly within.

The one on the right just emerged. It takes awhile for their wings to straighten out and dry.
Ready to release.

Good-bye!

 

April

The older I get, the more I find joy in simply being alive. Even when the going gets tough, there’s something to be said for being able to experience Life with all its ups and downs. I think it’s harder when you are young to see the larger picture of one’s life, and it’s very hard when circumstances in your life keep you from living comfortably with good physical and mental health. I have dealt with many things over my own life, so I can empathize, and I’m grateful for that. I hope that for everyone who reads this, you are able to find some peace of mind, especially right now with the pandemic.

As there is still risk in catching the coronavirus, we have stayed home for five weeks now, and we plan to stay here even if things begin to open back up. As I mentioned before, we have a high risk person living in our house, and we are also very lucky that we already work at home and homeschool. We miss many things about being able to leave the house, but it’s not crucial that we do so. My heart goes out to those who are stuck between losing a job and possibly losing their or a loved ones’ life. My hope is that everyone will take this seriously and will take proper precautions when leaving their homes, but it saddens me to see so many people who don’t care or don’t understand the situation for what it is.

I’m very grateful that over the last few years as I’ve been homeschooling, I have learned so much more about science and critical thinking — many thanks go to my children for having these interests and inspiring an interest in me. So on one level, it’s been very interesting to watch what is happening and to follow the scientists on social media who study this stuff and also compare that to what other people are saying and doing. It can be very frustrating too, and heartbreaking. But, it’s Life, and we can’t control it. I try to keep that in perspective when I start to feel angry and want to cast blame.

I don’t think there’s much point in arguing with anyone or trying to convince people of anything. There will always be people who hold vastly different opinions. The fight of “my opinion vs their opinion” has always been going on throughout history, and it will go on no matter what. Unfortunately, there are times that this struggle leads to more suffering, and that’s when it hurts most. Sometimes all I can do is try not to add any more hurt to the world and remember to find joy where it can be found.

Lately, I have found a lot of joy in springtime. This is such a beautiful time of year, and I miss my Nikon camera so much! Gah. There are so many beautiful things to notice. However, my phone camera takes pretty decent photos, if I can find the right light, and searching for the light has always been my favorite thing to do. Not having my Nikon anymore has put me back into my beginner photographer’s mind, learning about what I can do with my phone, searching for the right moments, light and angles. It’s been a joy.

Also, it’s been a joy to watch nature happening around the house. The birds are nesting, and the pair of cardinals that we have been feeding for a few years have built a nest in a little bush right by our front porch! I have been lucky to be able to snap a few photos of the nest when Mama Cardinal was on our back porch filling up on sunflower seeds. 🙂

I also had a little Carolina wren waking me up EVERY morning VERY early for WEEKS. I think he took possession of the birdhouse on our front porch, and he was trying to attract a mate. I don’t know why any female wren would pass up such a perfect location, but I have not heard him singing in the mornings lately. 😦 I haven’t noticed that the birdhouse is being used either. I wonder if it might be because the cardinal nest is so close by?

We are still mostly reading the same books or series I mentioned in my last monthly update, so this month I thought I’d share some of my favorite Netflix and Amazon Prime programs that I have been watching either by myself or with the family. Have you seen any of these? I recommend them all.

With the family–

Zumbo’s Just Desserts
Star Trek Voyager

Just me–

Unorthodox
Kim’s Convenience
Grantchester — Just started the 4th season!

Please leave me a comment and tell me how you are doing during this self-isolation period. Take Care~

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

One of many highlights of our recent trip was being able to visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. If you’ve been following my blog for awhile, you’ll know I’ve written several times about my younger son’s love of birds. He’s nine-years-old now, and he’s been talking about birds since he was about four. I am pleasantly surprised that his interest has not faded, though he definitely has his own way of navigating this project. We haven’t done a lot  of in depth study about birds. Instead, we’ve drawn them, watched them, identified dozens of them, collected toy birds, made toy birds, and only occasionally read books about them. Though I encourage it and offer whatever I can to foster his love of birds, I haven’t pushed all the ideas I would like to see done. This has been a good decision. It’s truly a child-led project.

We’ve known about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for awhile now, and I have been wanting to visit it, but I never thought we would be able to see it so soon. Then my eldest son’s interest in music took us to Cleveland, and well, though that’s not extremely close to Ithaca, it was close enough for us. We had to go!

We loved Ithaca, and we loved the Lab. We went twice. On the first visit, we walked the trails in Sapsucker Woods for about an hour, and then we took the behind-the-scenes tour of the lab. The next day, we went back and took a longer walk through the beautiful Sapsucker Woods.

View of the lab from across the pond.

It’s a beautiful building. About 250~300 faculty, students and staff work there. We were told it is mostly member-supported, and Cornell University contributes only a tiny percentage of its budget. It has the beautiful Wall of Birds (click on that link and you won’t be sorry), the Macaulay Library, which you can contribute to, and the Lab also houses Cornell University’s Museum of Vertebrates, so bird specimens aren’t the only resource available to students and researchers.

Here is the Lab’s mission statement:

Our mission is to interpret and conserve the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds.

If you are at all interested in birds, then you have probably already been to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. You have probably used the section All About Birdswhich can help you identify the birds you see outside your window. Or you have contributed your sightings to to eBird or another one of their popular citizen science projects.

Their website has much more on it, and if you are a bird lover or you have a child who is, then there’s a lot of educational materials that you can use. I can’t wait until my son gets a little older. I think he’ll really enjoy the Bird Academy. There are also activities and planned lessons for teachers or homeschooling co-op parents in their K-12 Education section. There’s even more than that, but I’ll stop there and let you explore their website yourself. You can also read about the history of the Lab on Wikipedia.

Sapsucker Woods is a special place, and we knew it before we even stepped on a trail. I’ll show you our walks through my photos.

I know Canada Geese are everywhere up north, but we don’t see them too often in Georgia, so we still enjoy encountering them.
Right at the start of the trail, we saw a pileated woodpecker. We see these occasionally in our yard, but it’s always a big deal when they arrive because they don’t come often. We stood there watching this one for quite awhile.
Mama wood duck and her ducklings.

fleabane

Fawn. Mama was there too.
Song sparrow
Haven’t identified this fella yet. Anybody know?

Baby raccoon. There were two siblings and a mom in the tree too.
Georgia Blue Jays have never posed for me like this one did. 😉
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Sapsucker Woods is a special place, and I highly recommend that you visit, if you can.

Have you ever been to the Cornell Lab? Please tell me about your visit.

January

A little visitor to our front porch. I like to think of the squirrels in our yard as friends, but I’m not sure she feels the same way about me.

January has been a quiet month around here. It has offered some very cold days — at least cold to us Southerners — so it’s been a good time to stay inside and get some work done.

The boys and I have been doing a lot of birdwatching out our windows, and we finally started some official Life Lists. (I love it when the boys get excited to write a bird’s name on their life list!) In Georgia, we have some birds who live here year-round, but it’s great fun to watch the winter visitors such as the golden-crowned kinglet, which is one of our our favorites (and comes in close second to my nine-year-old’s all-time favorite chickadee.)

For the second year in a row, we’ve had juncos visit the yard. Sometimes in pairs or sometimes twenty at a time! Also for the very first time, we saw two northern flickers! (They are so beautiful!) And we’ve been so excited to see a pileated woodpecker hanging out in the yard for a while. In the past, these big, gorgeous woodpeckers would only give us a brief glimpse before they moved on. We also had a young hawk hang out for a short time too.

(Yes, we’re going to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count this year!)

The pileated woodpecker. Gorgeous fellow.

Other than this, we’ve been keeping a good homeschooling routine — six days a week. Yes, that’s right. This morning (Saturday), my eldest son did science because it’s hard to fit it in during the weekdays, but I was thrilled to see he was enjoying it. He may be a pianist, but he still loves science, and I love that because I love it too. I love learning with him.

I don’t have much time for myself, and when I do have time, I usually end up lesson planning, cleaning, cooking (but not much — I still fail at this), or exercising (stupid hip thing), or planning the next six years. But to tell the truth, that’s kind of what I want to do right now. As I mentioned in my December post, I’m obsessing about planning for the next six years — junior high and high school. I’ve learned so much, and we’re already starting to implement some ideas in order to see if they will work and if I can fit them in. We’re going to try to fit more and more in as my son works through the rest of the 6th and 7th grade. The scheduling and how we do things is a sort of an experiment right now.

I keep thinking of topics and ideas to blog about, but when to actually blog? I’m writing this off-the-top-of-my-head, rambling post on a Saturday afternoon in about thirty minutes. (Saturdays and Sundays offer a little more free time.) Writing about specific curricula or other topics takes much longer because I have to think through what I want to say. Sigh.

I will tell you that we just signed up for a free trial of The Great Courses, and so far, we’re loving them. If we continue to like the courses, I can use some of them for our junior high and high school curriculum, and I’m so excited about this.

Now that January is almost over, I’m looking ahead to a very busy February when some important piano events and opportunities are starting. We will continue to lay low so my son can prepare and hopefully not get sick, and I’ll continue with my big planning. But right now I have thirty minutes until I need to start dinner, so I think I’ll take a nap. Thanks for reading!

Please leave me a message and tell me how YOU are doing this January.

Raising Giant Swallowtail Butterflies

After finding some black swallowtail caterpillars in our garden earlier this summer, we were very surprised to find giant swallowtail caterpillars too. We were even more surprised because these caterpillars looked like bird poop!

That is how my son identified them. He typed “caterpillars that look like bird poop” into a Google search engine, and giant swallowtails were the first result!

We were thrilled to find them because we don’t see giant swallowtails very often. We have seen them in our yard, but I can count on one hand the times I’ve spotted one. They are the largest butterfly in the U.S. and Canada, and they can have a wingspan of six inches. Ours weren’t quite that big, but they were almost five inches.

It turns out that one of the host plants for giant swallowtails is citrus, and if you remember, my son had planted a lemon seed a few years ago, and it grew into a small tree. We don’t live in the right climate for citrus, however, so it died during the winter. I cut off all the limbs, and I was going to throw it out, but in the spring, I started to see little green shoots come up again. So I left it. By the time the giant swallowtail came to lay her eggs, it was the size of a small bush. Since it’s unlikely we’ll ever have lemons, we don’t mind sharing our tree with caterpillars.

Eventually, we put some of the caterpillars into our butterfly cage, and we had the pleasure of observing these incredibly beautiful and well-camouflaged chrysalises.

They stayed in their chrysalis form for a good 15 days — that’s the longest we’ve ever observed a butterfly in a chrysalis. When they eclosed, they revealed their gorgeous adult attire, which was a far cry from the caterpillar-poop attire. 😉

We’re looking forward to other wonders we may find in our yard!

Raising Black Swallowtail Butterflies

Earlier this summer, we saw a monarch butterfly laying eggs on our milkweed plant, but when the caterpillars were very tiny, they disappeared. We believe a wasp preyed upon them. That was disappointing, but soon after, we found some other interesting caterpillars in our yard. We identified these as black swallowtails. There were seven. We didn’t take any chances with these guys. As soon as we could, we put them into a butterfly cage.

I can’t tell you how exciting this is for us. We love helping caterpillars get to their adult stage safely. 😉 Here are some of the photos I took.

We found these small caterpillars on my potted dill plant, and we had no idea what they were. With the help of iNaturalist, we found out they were black swallowtail caterpillars.

As they grew, they got very pretty.

In the last instar, they are gorgeous caterpillars.

Their chrysalis is quite striking as well.

We bought a large butterfly cage and put the entire potted dill inside. They were kept quite safe there.

A male. We had two males and five females total.

They all made it safely out into the wild.

We are also helping some giant swallowtail butterflies. I will post photos of them after they eclose too.

Raising Monarch Butterflies

In August and September, we had a pretty amazing experience. It started because last spring, I tried planting some milkweed seeds. My plan was to grow a lot of milkweed, and then I would order some monarch larvae and try to raise them just like we did for painted ladies four years ago.

My ideas didn’t quite work out the way I planned. First of all, out of 150 seeds, less than ten milkweed plants grew. (I’m sure this has more to do with my yard’s growing conditions and my lack of a green thumb. I have a green pinky.) They also grew very slowly. Only a few of them got big, but they never blossomed.

My milkweed plants. All of them.

One day while I was watering the milkweed, I noticed some holes in the leaves. When I turned over a leaf, there it was — a tiny monarch caterpillar!

Baby monarch caterpillar. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw this little fella.

When I searched, I found them all over the milkweed. We were so excited. There were almost 20 caterpillars. (Every time we tried to count, we got a different number. There were a lot of hiding places in the milkweed.)

They grew and grew. I wondered from the very beginning, if this little patch of milkweed would be enough for them, especially after they got big.

We had another worry too. Tropical Storm Irma was going to come through here. I noticed that a mere sprinkle of the hose to water the milkweed could knock down the caterpillars.

There was no way they were going to survive Tropical Storm Irma. We made the effort to put the big pots into our garage, and as the storm was passing, I was glad I did that. It was fierce. (But I am saddened to think about how much wildlife must have drowned in that storm.)

They continued to eat and eat, grow and grow, and poop and poop. Just like caterpillars are supposed to do. It was quite amazing to watch.

We were clearly going to run out of milkweed, so I asked around for help. Someone on Twitter sent me an article saying that if the caterpillars are in their 5th instar, they will eat pumpkin and cucumber. So we bought some pumpkin and cucumber and put it in the pots, giving them a way to climb up, just like on the milkweed. At first they didn’t eat the alternate food, but by the next day, the milkweed was gone, and they were eating it! We were so relieved.

Not long after this, we noticed some of the caterpillars began leaving the pots. We knew they were probably going out to try to find a place to pupate. We decided to keep a few in our butterfly cage. I wanted the boys to be able to watch the metamorphosis, especially my eight-year-old, who doesn’t remember raising the painted ladies. I also wanted to give a few of the caterpillars some extra protection. I put seven caterpillars in the cage, and let the other ones go on their own.

When caterpillars are ready to pupate, they find a good place to attach themselves to with a silky thread and hang upside down in this J shape. They were like this for about one day at least.

Notice the gold flecks on the chrysalis. So beautiful.

Pretty soon we had four chrysalises in our cage. A day or two later, we had three more. So far, so good. We were so excited to be able to watch one become a chrysalis! I hastily grabbed my phone and got these not-the-greatest videos, but still, it’s pretty incredible.

(Something you should know about these videos: You might want to turn your volume down because my neighbor was cutting up a tree that fell during Irma with an electric saw, and it’s quite loud. Also, my son says the caterpillar is not shedding its skin. Actually, it is! It sheds all of it, and it will finally fall off in the second video.)

We also found a caterpillar hanging from one of the pots with the milkweed growing in it, and it made its chrysalis there. We were so happy to know where one of our “free” caterpillars went to. We looked around our yard for more chrysalises, but we couldn’t find any more at this point.

After about nine days, we began to notice that the chrysalises were turning a black color. This is actually because the chrysalis is transparent, and we could now see the monarch butterfly’s wings inside this beautiful pupa.

Exactly ten days after pupating, the first butterflies emerged from their chrysalis. I can’t tell you how excited we were.

We ran over to check the chrysalis on our pot. It had emerged too! It stayed there for about an hour, opening and closing its wings slightly, letting them dry. My boys were there when it finally flew away.

To our delight, we found three other butterflies emerging from their chrysalis in the yard! It’s easier to find the butterfly than the tiny, green chrysalis, but finding one butterfly led us to finding another chrysalis, which was nearby.We stayed by this one all morning, and we were able to watch it emerge. It’s not the best video, but here you go:

The wings will slowly spread out and dry.
Another one we found on our garden fence.

Throughout the day, four of the seven butterflies in our cage emerged, and we let them go as soon as they seemed strong enough to fly.

The next morning, the last three butterflies emerged, so we said good-bye to them too.

Now all the butterflies are hopefully on their way to Mexico where they will spend the winter. If you’ve never heard about the Monarch migration, or how they congregate together in one place in Mexico, you should read about it.

I don’t think we’ll ever forget this experience, and it’s times like these that I’m especially glad we’re homeschooling. Most kids don’t get to stop what they’re doing and spend a whole weekday morning watching butterflies emerge from their chrysalises. But what better education is there than having an intimate experience with nature?

The boys are hoping we’ll get to do this again, and I’m hoping it doesn’t happen until we have plenty of milkweed. But our little milkweed plants are recovering and growing faster this time, so I’m hopeful. 🙂

What exciting experiences are you having this autumn?

Nature Watch: Ft. Yargo State Park

Today is Friday, and we all needed a break, so we decided to take a little hike at our nearby state park, Ft. Yargo. It’s only about 15 minutes from our house, and every time we go, we say, “We should come here more often.” But we don’t go nearly enough.

Ft. Yargo State Park is about 1,800 acres, and it has a 260 acre lake. It’s quite a treasure. In the past we’ve explored different areas of the park, but today we took our favorite trail. My photos aren’t the best because I just had my phone camera with me, but I still wanted to share what we found with you.

We expected there might be a lot of debris on the trail left over from Tropical Storm Irma, which just passed through here on Monday. We were right. Above you can see some trees that fell, but someone already cleared them from the trail. Everywhere there were small branches and green leaves. It was a little hard to walk in some places. 

But we considered it an adventure, and we made a lot of nature discoveries along the trail, including these beautiful flower/berry things. I need to figure out what they are!

Our best encounter was with this handsome Eastern Kingsnake, which we rarely see. Its head was hidden under the fallen debris. They are not as common, but they are great snakes to have around. They eat rats, mice and venomous snakes! I think they are quite pretty with the yellow rings around their body too.

Spiders were everywhere! My husband walked in front swinging a stick because numerous spider webs crossed the trail. It’s not a great photo, but this yellow and orange spider was the prettiest we found. I need to identify it too.

Many flowers are blooming right now. It’s a great time to watch for butterflies, and we saw a few fritillaries.

This hornet’s nest was a cool find, but we didn’t want to stick around long to watch it. (And I wasn’t standing this close. I used my zoom.)

We are always happy to encounter frogs, so this little fowler’s toad was a welcome sight too.

We all had a great time, except for the eight-year-old who complained about being tired and bored, except when we saw the snake. (You can’t have it all, can you?) He’s not the nature boy that his older brother is, but we’re not giving up on him yet. He did enjoy it a little bit, and he liked going out to eat afterward and not doing his lessons today. Although, I consider time spent in nature one of the best lessons of all. 😉

What has your Friday been like?

Nature Watch: Horned Lizard

Look closely. Do you see it? It has great camouflage.

When we were in New Mexico, we stopped along the road to enjoy the view and take photos. If I hadn’t of almost stepped on this little guy, I would have never seen him. My boys knew exactly what it was and told me it was a “horny toad.” After searching on the Internet, I’ve learned that they can be called that or “horned toads,” or more accurately, “horned lizard.” There are 14 species of horned lizards. I’m not sure what species this is, but he sure was a cute little guy, and I’m so glad we had the privilege of seeing him.

We saw many wild animals on our trip west that we can’t find in Georgia, which was a thrill. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good photos of any other animals, so I’ll just share the “nature discoveries” list we made on that trip. I keep a small journal listing all our wildlife finds. At least one of us has to see an animal to make it into the journal.

Birds: great-tailed grackles, ravens, magpies, cliff swallows, and a hovering kestrel (we think it was a kestrel)

Mammals: pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk, prairie dogs

Reptiles: horned lizard, whiptail lizard

What have been your latest nature discoveries?

Nature Watch: Oakworm Moth

One morning I went out to water our garden, and I found this beauty on the green bean leaves. Curiously, I had also seen this moth on our porch one evening, but the colors were much more muted. I don’t know if this is a slightly different species or the sunlight was making it shine, but I couldn’t get over the colors in it. And it wasn’t until I viewed my photos later that I noticed the wings are translucent!

This is an oakworm moth, and I think it’s the pink-striped oakworm moth, but it’s very hard to tell it apart from the orange-tipped oakworm moth, so I’m not sure. (If you know, please tell me.)

My son became fascinated with moths a while back, and while it’s not what I’d call an active project (that is, he’s not researching information about them or creating any representations anymore), we still get quite excited when we find a moth we’ve never seen before in the yard. We have been lucky enough to find the Polyphemus Moth, Luna Moth, and the Tulip-tree Silkmoth, and I think we’ve seen the Imperial Moth too, but I don’t have a photo of one. We still haven’t seen a Cecropia Moth in the wild, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed!

As a little bonus, I want to share this photograph I took on one of my summer morning walks. It was a wet and foggy morning because it had stormed the previous day, and the dew made hundreds, maybe thousands, of spider webs visible in the trees. I marveled at how many there were, and luckily I had my phone with me, so I took a photo of this one, which hung on a branch by the road. Spider webs are amazing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed making some nature discoveries lately too, and I hope you’re staying cool throughout this brutal summer!